Music in Saint John

In early Saint John, music was the special enthusiasm of the educated Loyalists and the British officers.

Music in Saint John

Saint John is a city in New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy at the mouth of the Saint John River. Developing on the site of a series of French and English forts dating back to 1631, Saint John became, in 1785, the first Canadian city to be incorporated. By 1824 it had a population of 8,000, including many descendants of the Loyalists — opponents of the American Revolution — who had arrived in 1783. Saint John became a centre of fishing and shipbuilding and in 1986 had a population of 121,265.

In early Saint John, music was the special enthusiasm of the educated Loyalists and the British officers. New Brunswick's solicitor-general 1784-1808, Ward Chipman Sr, was noted for the soirées at his home, in which he entertained his guests with the latest songs from London.

A notable Loyalist musician, Stephen Humbert, moved in 1783 from New Jersey to Saint John, where, in 1796, he opened a Sacred Vocal Music School (see Singing schools). An ardent Wesleyan Methodist, in 1801 (a time when many churches damned music as irreligious) Humbert compiled Union Harmony, the first Canadian music book with English text.

Some church deacons, who objected to 'dance music in the House of God' were prevailed upon, only after considerable resistance, to permit the singing of a 'copper tune' during the collection. Even as late as 1867 no organ was permitted at St Andrew's Presbyterian Kirk, and after that only a feeble one. Some churches were not averse to music, however. In 1802 Trinity (Anglican) Church, with the help of a £200 donation from a wealthy merchant, imported an organ from London.

Colin Campbell, in 1801, advertised violins, military and common fifes, and an Aeolian harp, as well as the most fashionable music from Scotland, Italy, and elsewhere. Educational institutions, such as the Music Academy set up by the Irishman Arthur Corry in 1822, improved musical standards and gave students the opportunity to perform.

Of many choral societies, the first was the Phil-Harmonic Society, established in 1824. Another was the Catch and Glee Club, formed in 1833 by an Irish immigrant. In 1837, Alexander Lawrence, a member of St Andrew's Kirk who opposed the minister's suppression of music, organized a Sacred Music Society which for at least eight years thereafter, under a former regimental bandmaster named Weisbecker, performed selections from the works of Handel, Haydn, and Mozart (see 'Alexander Lawrence,' DCB, vol 7). Another Sacred Music Society, founded by Stephen Humbert, made its first public appearance in 1840 at the Baptist Church.

A Mechanics' Institute was built in 1840 and henceforth provided a needed platform for comic opera and concerts. In 1832 the Hermann troupe from Munich had brought performances of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, and Weber to the city. The St Luke family, in an extended stay in the early 1840s, gave concerts and trained a local choir. During Christmas week 1841, the St Lukes gave three concerts. In March 1842, with the help of his children and a 22-piece orchestra, St Luke presented a concert which included eight excerpts from Haydn's The Creation and a violin concerto by de Bériot. After a farewell concert in 1843 the St Lukes moved on to Halifax. In 1853 Saint John was visited by the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull.

Among several briefly successful musical organizations was the Harmonic society of 23 singers, formed in 1854 under the conductor and organist Theodoric Wichtendahl. The society performed secular and sacred music including excerpts from opera and oratorio (eg, Messiah) and drew capacity audiences to the seven-or-so concerts it presented 1855-6. Early in 1857 Wichtendahl resigned his $75-a-year post after a dispute with the society's executive over his failure to develop an orchestra. Wichtendahl's successor, Signor de Angelis, gave two concerts, but the society seems to have disbanded in 1857.

Later enterprise were the Saint John Oratorio Society, organized by Thomas Morley in 1882, whose performances included Handel's Messiah and Samson, Haydn's Creation and Seasons and Mendelssohn's Elijah, St Paul and Athalia, Spohr's Last Judgment and Sterndale Bennett's May Queen. The society sometimes imported orchestral members and soloists from Boston. It ceased to exist sometime in the first decade of the 20th century. The Euterpian Club under James S. Ford (Ford prepared the 150-voice Festival Chorus for its participation in the Cycle of Musical Festivals held in April 1903); and the Saint John Choral Society, directed by Ernest S. Peacock, which performed, among other works, Messiah (1911, 1912, and 1913), The Creation (1912), and Cowen's The Rose Maiden (1913).

Saint John has had a succession of music halls - and destructive fires. The Mechanics' Institute (1840-1914) survived longer than most. The Academy of Music, built on Germain St in 1872, was destroyed in the great fire of 1877. The Opera House, built in 1891 - used for comic operas and operettas in its early days, for burlesque later, and for movies ultimately - burned down in 1959. The Imperial Theatre (Saint John, NB), built in 1913 for vaudeville, hosted such performers as Ethel Barrymore, John P. Sousa and Sir Harry Lauder. It served from 1929 as the Capitol movie house and was eventually closed in 1957, leaving Saint John without a large concert hall. In 1982 the building was purchased for renovation and the Bi-Capitol Project Inc. was launched to raise funds from all levels of the community to complete the restoration in time for Saint John's bi-centennial in 1985. In 1991 the projected opening date of the Imperial Performing Arts Centre was 1994. Meanwhile the Saint John's High School Auditorium hosts any large concerts.

Vocal music in Saint John owed much to David Thomson, who had arrived from Scotland in 1914. After World War I he formed the Brunswick Singers, a male quartet which also performed with Don Messer as the Lumberjacks Quartet. In 1937 Thomson began to lead the popular Capitol Theatre singsongs and founded the mixed-voice Carriden Choir which performed throughout New Brunswick and on the CBC national network until 1967. As provincial music supervisor 1949-65, Thomson effected major changes in school music throughout New Brunswick. In 1991 choirs in Saint John included the Men of Fundy, a barbershop choir founded by Don Regan and the Rotary Boys Choir, begun in 1965 and conducted by Kevin Langford. In 1988 the latter took part in the International Kathaumixw Choral Festival in Powell River, BC.

In the 1890s the Rev James Anderson, an advocate of Tonic Sol-Fa, gave instruction to Saint John teachers. In 1898 Morton L. Harrison organized and conducted a high school orchestra; Harrison's orchestra, later conducted by William C. Bowden, survived until after World War II. The Imperial Theatre Orchestra (Saint John, NB) was active during the 1920s and lasted about 16 years. Conducted by Alfie Jones, the 15 members played for silent movies until talkies came in and it was disbanded. Catherine Robinson, in the early 1900s, was Saint John's first full-time school music teacher.

James Brown, an organist from England, was supervisor of music for Saint John schools from 1923 until shortly after World War II. He was interested especially in boys' choirs and organized several non-competition festivals in the schools. In 1932 Fred A Hazel, a Saint John native who studied music at the New England Conservatory in Boston, produced and conducted his first of many operetta performances, accompanied by the Bruce Holder Orchestra. The performances raised funds for the Knights of Columbus, and up to his last production in 1956 he taught the large casts their singing and dance routines himself. In 1957 he was awarded the Canadian Drama Award. In 1985 a reunion of cast members was held in Saint John to pay tribute to Hazel. After World War II Douglas Major (composer, b England 1902, d Saint John 1969), who was associate conductor of the Carriden Choir, organist-choirmaster at St Paul's Anglican Church, and a public school music teacher, wrote an opera, The Loyalists (libretto by Patricia Collins), which was performed in Saint John in 1967.

In the 1950s orchestral activity increased dramatically in Saint John owing to the development of such groups as the Saint John Symphony Orchestra, founded 1950 by Kelsey Jones; the New Brunswick Symphony Orchestra; the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra; and the regularly visiting Atlantic Symphony Orchestra.

Eldon Rathburn, who spent the early years of his career in the city, composed the concerto Steelhenge premiered by Saint John's Lancaster Kiwanis Steel Band and the Atlantic SO in 1974. The band, formed in 1972 of high school students and directed by Walter Ball, has toured the Maritimes, performed at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and made two records for RCA.

In 1967 the National Finals of the Centenary Festivals of Music were held in Saint John and the city adopted as its official song 'My Own Canadian Home', which had been published in Saint John in 1887.

Musicians born in Saint John include Berkley Chadwick, Stompin' Tom Connors, Jane Coop, Bruce Holder, Frances James, the songwriter Michael F. Kelly, Ned Landry, the composer and teacher Edward Betts Manning, Paul Murray, Catherine McKinnon, Patricia Rideout, Philip Thomson, and the tenor and choir conductor Gordon Wry.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

See also: Instrument collections: New Brunswick.


Further Reading

  • 'A reverie of Saint John,' Canadian Courier, 12 Oct 1912

    Harper, J. Russell. 'The theatre in Saint John, 1789-1817,' Dalhousie R, Autumn 1954

    'Spring tide: an enquiry into the lives, labours, loves and manners of early New Brunswickers,' unpublished manuscript, National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa)

    Elliott, Carleton. 'Music in New Brunswick,' The Arts in New Brunswick (Fredericton, NB 1967)